Dynamist Blog


The old fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc--e.g., I got breast implants and then I got autoimmune disease; therefore the implants caused the diseas--leads to a lot of bad public policy. But at least it appeals to the human desire to find patterns. When it comes to the latest serious health problem--big fat Americans with all sorts of obsesity-related diseases--people make connections that don't even require post hoc logic. Take report from a LAT account on the tax costs of obesity:

Susan Foerster, chief of cancer prevention and nutrition for the state health department, said her staff is analyzing a variety of factors--such as car-dominated or unsafe neighborhoods and limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables--that could cause millions of people to gain weight in a relatively short time. Obesity "is way up over where it was even 15 years ago," Foerster said. "It's not a matter of simply pushing away from the table or getting up off the couch ï¿ the increase in rates over time has been a function of changed lifestyles and changed environment."

Ms. Foerster herself says people weren't this fat a mere 15 years ago. That would be the mid-1980s. I was alive in the mid-1980s; I even lived in California. Americans drove cars and lived in the suburbs. They didn't walk a lot. There was less access to fresh fruits and vegetables than there is today. Ms. Foerster, who was apparently born around 1990, seems to think the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s resembled the 1920s (or even earlier). Why did people gain so much weight over such a short time? It's a mystery that requires a lot more intelligent analysis than the California health department is offering. A 15-year-old trend won't have a 50-year-old cause.

A leading candidate is the changing nature of work, with more people sitting in chairs all day. When my father started work as an industrial engineer in the late 1950s, he was told that the typical factory worker walked six miles in the course of a day's work; walk that much and you're unlikely to get fat. Work today is more pleasant, and less taxing, but instead of getting paid to exercise, you have to use leisure time to burn calories.

Take health care, a fast-growing industry. While the doctors may be slim, in my admittedly unscientific experience, the typical support person--whether a nurse, a technician, or a paper processor--is seriously overweight. And it's not as though people who work in hospitals and doctor's offices don't know being obese is dangerous.

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